Friday, May 13, 2005

A Dramatic Flop

The expression on the woman's face changed so swiftly and seamlessly from one of crazed belligerence to a picture of stupefied terror that I was reminded of an exercise in one of Mrs. Chalk's drama classes in primary school and was unable to suppress a wistful chuckle, which probably wasn't the most appropriate reaction under the circumstances. Luckily my training took over automatically and without thinking I stepped back smartly to avoid the fountain of blood pumping from her arm. Her face contorted in an ugly grimace and grew paler, contrasting dramatically with her blue lips. The scalpel slipped from her grasp and she slumped sideways as her life ebbed away, her last attention-seeking performance literally a hopeless, lifeless flop. She'd misjudged not only the lethal sharpness of the blade but also the commitment of her audience.

After a few minutes the show was over and Albert, unerringly the gentleman, went to the kitchen to put the kettle on. I browsed idly through the books on the shelves and opened some drawers, examining their contents with more of the layman's curiosity than the professional detachment of the trained ambulanceman. Poking around in other people's houses, nosing through their most intimate private belongings, is something everyone enjoys given the chance, and doing it in the presence of the owner's warm corpse adds a certain frisson denied the man in the street.

When we arrived at the house, the front door was already open. We entered cautiously and found the woman sitting on a sofa in the drawing room with a can of Special Brew in one hand and a surgical scalpel in the other. She immediately launched into a drunken, foul-mouthed tirade against the injustice of the world in general and the duplicity of men in particular, all the time threatening to cut us and herself with the spiteful little blade.

She wore with pride the twin badges of the tortured soul: numerous parallel lines of scar tissue ascending both forearms like the rungs of two crazy ladders. As she ranted on, she half-heartedly threw the empty can at me and then started slashing at her arm with something approaching enthusiasm. And then she went in a little too deeply and I had to step back to keep my boots clean.

Albert returned from the kitchen with two large mugs of strong tea and a couple of lottery tickets he'd found lying around somewhere. He sat down, made himself comfortable and switched on the television. I was leafing idly through some photographs and documents. Mary Margaret Sheridan would have been forty years old if she'd lived another six days and had once been quite extraordinarily beautiful. Such a sad and senseless waste of

"I say, old chap," Albert interrupted my reverie. "I do believe we've won a tenner."